Creation of groups gets initial approval

Another step toward creating two organizations to handle funding requests to address the area’s opioid crisis has been taken.

An ordinance to create a Substance Abuse Public Funding Board and the Substance Abuse Services Advisory and Accountability Committee received unanimous first-reading approval Monday by the Bartholomew County Commissioners. Final approval could be given as early as April 9.

Monday’s action by the commissioners mirrors votes on an identical ordinance approved Feb. 20 and March 6 by the Columbus City Council.

The commissioners emphasized the board and committee will follow guiding principles that involve seeking external funding first, no duplication of services and a preference for evidence-based programs and processes.

A 40 percent increase in the county’s local income tax, approved in October, followed by a recommendation by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress Bartholomew County initiative led to the proposed board and committee.

As recommended by ASAP, funding proposals would first be heard by an oversight committee that would include individuals known as content experts.

That would include Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers, two community members, a city administrator, County Prosecutor Bill Nash, two addiction-services providers, a criminal defense attorney and an ASAP representative.

The committee would report its findings on each proposal to the board, which would help decide which entity could fund projects or programs before they are implemented.

The board would then make budgetary recommendations to the Columbus City Council and the Bartholomew County Council on what to fund.

Board members would include Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, city council president Frank Miller, and Bartholomew County Council member Laura DeDomenic.

Representatives on the board for Columbus Regional Health and the county commissioners have not yet been designated. But once the commissioners give their final approval to the ordinance, board and committee members will have to be in place within 30 days, county attorney Grant Tucker said.

Constituent reaction to the ordinances has been mixed, commissioners Larry Kleinhenz and Rick Flohr said. However, three audience members — Linda Davidson, Lynne Fleming and Chuck Doup — all voiced their support for the ordinance Monday.

The commissioners also gave first-reading approval Monday to a separate ordinance creating a non-reverting fund that will hold any public or private monies allocated for use by the new board and committee, Tucker said. In March, the city council took a similar step and budgeted $250,000 for the ASAP initiative in 2018.

When the tax hike was approved in October, many supporting community members specifically cited the opioid crisis as their reason for supporting the increase.

Although the city of Columbus is receiving a higher share of new revenue from the tax hike than the county, Kleinhenz said the city has not yet committed any of those funds for addiction treatment programs that have been proposed for the county jail.

Although the heroin problem is a key factor, Kleinhenz emphasized it is the broader scope of public safety that prompted the Bartholomew County Council to approve the tax hike.

Besides the opioid crisis, the new funding provides the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department with money needed for law enforcement and housing jail inmates, said Kleinhenz, who chairs the commissioners.

While jail overcrowding is considered one of the county’s most significant problems, addressing the matter by reopening an older portion of the jail would require hiring between 5 and 11 new employees, Kleinhenz said.

Kleinhenz announced Monday that commissioners have tabled a proposal to remodel the current indoor recreational facilities at the jail for smaller inmate housing units.

The proposal, which Kleinhenz discussed March 5 with the Bartholomew County Council, included enclosing the outdoor recreational facility on top of the jail.

But on Monday, the commissioners’ chairman said cost estimates of up to $4 million are too expensive for consideration.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.